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Oliver and Company Review

 

Oliver & Company (1988) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

 

Ah 1988. What a year. With a USA Presidential election, terrorist attacks sending panic throughout the world and the Olympics games taking place…What a time to be alive.

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And then of course I was born. Yes. Cokie Blume entered the world (and yes I know I have disclosed my real name on here and most of you know me personally anyway but let’s just pretend neither of those are facts and humour me) in early 1988 and with them was born an insatiable appetite for popstars masquerading as cartoon dogs. And lo, did Disney deliver.

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This is Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel Dog.

But first, as with our previous 2 reviews, let us discuss what was happening over at Don Bluth Headquarters. Don Bluth’s posse was undeniably strong at this point. His new feature, The Land Before Time, had two of the biggest players in Hollywood history behind it with George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas and Steven ‘every film ever’ Spielberg as producers. With this kind of backing the dinosaur adventure Bluth created was epic in every sense and with a huge hit already under his belt he must have been feeling pretty cocky. Cocky enough to go up against Disney on the same opening weekend.

But Disney had a plan…Prolific voice actor Dom DeLuise appeared in very nearly every Bluth film, particularly in the 80’s…But Disney pilfered him from Land Before Time to appear in Oliver & Company. So let’s recap: Bluth had Spielberg and Lucas and Disney had DeLuise…

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Too close to call…

 

Critically The Land Before Time obliterated Oliver & Company with the overall consensus being that The Land Before Time was beautiful and thought provoking while Oliver & Company was a low effort merchandise generator. Ouch.

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What? Dogs just like McDonalds…You shut up…

Money wise it was a bit closer: Land Before Time won the battle of the opening weekends going straight to number 1 with Oliver languishing at number 4 but Oliver made more money in total domestically when all was said and done. That is if we don’t include the seemingly never ending sequels the Land Before Time generated.

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Does the Ice Age never arrive in this timeline? And they accused Oliver of being the money vacuum…

Disney even went as far as to rerelease Oliver in direct competition with a new Bluth film further down the line with the aim of once again outdoing him in the bank department. It was an out and out war and I fucking love it. Sure, it is less Hitler and Mussolini vs Churchill and Roosevelt, more the Sharks vs the Jetts in West Side Story. If Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Bluth ever met in the street I am sure they just danced at each other. With Deluise sobbing in the middle…

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Can’t we all just love each other?

Overall I would give yet another point to Bluth, making it 3-0 at our latest count. But it’s not over yet folks. Disney were boosted by the domestic box office results and announced plans to release an annual animated feature for the foreseeable future therefore doing away with the long gaps in between films that had dragged 80’s Disney down. Good news then yes? Although you might suspect there will be a drop in quality with that kind of time pressure on them…

Right?

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I’m so fucking stoked…

It feels odd to be talking about the best of animated Disney, Spielberg produced movies and 1988 without mentioning the critical darling that is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The cinematic masterpiece that arguably began the period known as-But let’s save all that for next time. Because this is about films produced by the Walt Disney Animation Studios only and not about the time I was four years old and I realised what sex appeal looks like without really understanding what that meant or why I felt funny:

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Literally impossible standards of beauty-Away with you!

So forget the small waisted animated women with amazing hair for a moment: We have a half baked Dickensian adaptation to watch!

 

Did I see it as a child?

 

Oh hell yes. I was obsessed with one of the songs in it and performed it constantly for a period of time. I remember I loved the way the dogs jumped from car to car and I used to act out the song in question at my local park jumping from different parts of the climbing frame while singing loudly doing my best to be cool. It kind of worked until the inevitable clang of me tumbling from the monkey bars.

I often acted out films and stories with other people in my class and it was suggested by someone on one occasion that we do Oliver & Company. By the way this wasn’t a recess thing: Our teacher would let us leave the classroom to rehearse and we would take up class time with the actual performances too. And they were not short. It is a wonder I learnted anything. Alas, alack, our production of Oliver & Company was not meant to be as Olivia Cameron and I got into a fierce argument over who would play Georgette and some things were said that couldn’t be taken back (Well she might have been prettier than me but she didn’t have my acting chops and everyone knew it…) and so we settled on a performance of Hocus Pocus instead and the idea was lost forever. Which was a damn shame. Although my work as Ice/Thackery Binx in what I am pretty sure was a 4 hour performance of Hocus Pocus (the kid playing Max didn’t know her lines) was superb.

 

Synopsis:

 

We open on a scratchy looking New York and a box of kittens that are being sold despite the fact nobody appears to be around to do the whole exchange of goods for cash thing but no matter, that’s the Big Apple innit? There are loads of taxis, tall buildings and boxes of cats as far as the eye can see. So all the kittens are camping it up in the hope of being chosen but naturally the passers by by pass the ginger cat Oliver in favour of the blue cats of the litter because holy shit it’s a blue cat:

 

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But the night grows cold and dark and soon Oliver is left alone with nothing but the waterlogged remains of the box and the disembodied voice of Huey Lewis for company-Huey Lewis assures him everything will be fine but Oliver is not convinced.

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After meeting Billy Joel Dog (His name is Dodger in the actual real life film but I will continue to call him Billy Joel Dog because I can) Oliver helps him with a sausage stealing caper that is deemed successful in spite of the fact the sausages are dragged through wet concrete and all over the sidewalks during a boisterous musical number.

 

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You know what? I’ll pass. Wasn’t hungry anyway.

But When Billy Joel Dog lives up to his actual name and dodges out of sharing, Oliver follows him back to his house and meets the gang of dogs he lives with and their owner Fagin who sends his pets out everyday to steal enough good stuff to pay off his extensive debts with a loan shark…

Ok…This is the part where adapting a story about humans into a story about dogs throws up some questions…This seems like a flawed business model to me. How does owning and caring for 5 dogs who are willing to roam the streets during the day = profit? Well apparently it doesn’t because the mafia boss in question Bill Sykes, here represented by a big jawed bald dude who smokes comically large cigars, makes it clear that Fagin only has 3 days to come through with the dough or else…

 

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And all that implies…

So Oliver, keen to fit in, agrees to turn to a life of crime but about 8 minutes into his first day he messes up and ends up stuck in a car with a small girl named Jenny who takes an instant liking to him and he to her.

So now he faces an agonising choice…Which family will he choose? The gang of dogs he has known for about 14 hours or the lovely little girl he has known for about 26 minutes?

Oh and will Fagin get his kneecaps broken by Sykes in the slightly more adult plot next door?

 

What Works:

 

They say you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Seriously. Everybody says that. I think it is a human rule that you have to say it at least once a decade in some wistful context or you get evicted from Earth. But in this case the longing in my heart wasn’t awakened until what was taken from me was returned. While others may argue an alternative case, my feeling is that this is the first Disney musical since Robin Hood. That was a lot of films ago. And while every film since has had merit (And Black Cauldron was also there) and even a few songs, it wasn’t until I sat down to Oliver & Company that I truly appreciated how much I fucking love a Disney musical.

The soundtrack is impressively rangy in style too. Late 80’s pop, rock, blues, a big Broadway number, simple sweet piano, and, of course, the symphony of wonder that is the city of New York itself. Normally this would feel a bit forced but each song works with the artist it is given to and adds to the story successfully or, if not, pads it out in a suitably entertaining way. They brought in some heavy duty song writers to get the mix right ranging from the eternal Barry Manilow to piano man Billy Joel (did I mention Billy Joel is in this?) to the legendary lyrist Howard Ashman who will be back before this project is over. And the voices they were writing for? We are talking Ruth Pointer, Bette Fucking Midler, Huey Lewis and, of course, Billy Joel.

It was a joy to see the care that went into creating the soundtrack even if not all the songs are equally appreciated by me. ‘Once Upon a Time in New York City’ is a bit corny and ‘Streets of Gold’ is cut short just as it is getting going which is a shame. ‘Perfect Isn’t Easy’ is a great showcase for Bette Midler’s creation Georgette and ‘Good Company’ is one of the most effective relationship building songs Disney has ever done…But before we get to talking about those scenes we have to talk about Billy Joel Dog.

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The film doesn’t really exist until Billy Joel Dog shows up. He talks like every late 80’s/early 90’s cool guy (‘You’re not being fair! ‘Fares are for tourists kid!’ Ooh burn!) and struts all over New York like he owns it, jumping from car to car, being mean to a small cat, sexually harassing girl dogs, singing while his mouth is closed in one shot, conjuring previous Disney dogs through the power of cool alone, stopping traffic for a dog parade, and playing a moving piano and…This is all in a 3 minute song. It is ridiculously awesome.

And the song? I love it. Always have, always will. When I first got a portable music playing device it was the 3rd or 4th song that went on it. True story. Full disclosure: I’m an adult. But God save me, I love pretending to be a strutting dog in New York with a pair of stolen glasses, a string of ruined sausages and a dudetastic attitude that would make Sonic the Hedgehog, the Ninja Turtles and the Fonz all go ‘No. That’s too much sass now’ When I hear ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I forget that I hate everything. It is so cheesy. But I can’t not.

I am not sure if I even care much for the character of Dodger in the grand scheme of things. He is fairly clichéd (he is a bad boy who is actually caring and good, quelle surprise!) and not as interesting to me as the out for himself kid in the Carol Reed adaptation of Dickens’s classic tale. But Billy Joel is gung ho in his reading of the awful quips and ‘Why Should I Worry?’ is enjoyable enough that I don’t care what happens after it in all honesty.

But, in time honoured tradition, I will review the rest of the movie. Let’s take a break from the music and talk animation. It is a largely good looking film and, as with Great Mouse Detective, it gently hints to the more sophisticate visual story telling Disney would very soon be moving to if you know what to look for. Director, animator and artist George Scribner showcases some seriously cool camera shots that make what is a fairly basic story (cat moves house a few times, some shenanigans ensue) seem considerably more action packed.

I love the way New York is depicted in the opening and closing shots:

 

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The setting is used well as a background character. It isn’t all tall buildings and bright lights, it is kind of dirty and noisy with cabs as far as the eye can see and Oliver & Company portray this with pride.

 

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Some of my favourite scenes/shots? Ok! When Oliver falls off the piano during ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I always gasp. Everytime. Don’t worry, some tomatoes break his fall and he is fine and dandy. The perils of gravity are inconsistent in the Disney universe.

Ditto electricity in this film but we will get to that later…

When Jenny is performing ‘Good Company’ at the piano, Oliver is leaping all over and the camera spins round them in a way that just feels very natural and not at all showy but is still kind of impressive. It really feels like it paved the way for the dancing scene in Beauty and the Beast. I have never looked this up and just choose to believe it did. It is a lovely sequence anyway and I especially like that bit. Good Company has a pretty melody and the bonding of the two characters is very simply played in a way I find kind of moving. I didn’t go as far to cry or anything but I felt warm and fuzzy and temporarily thought I might want a cat.

Then there is Georgette, Jenny’s poodle, making her spotlit descent down the stairs at the end of her musical number, a moment that was so unexpectedly sophisticated visually speaking that my viewing partner announced: ‘It’s like something out of The West Wing…But with slutty dogs’ This remains one of my favourite soundbites of all time, not that I advocate shaming dogs for their promiscuity of course.

 

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Bitches be like…

Georgette, is played by the hammy Bette Midler to great effect. I can’t think of an equivalent character in the story of Oliver Twist but she isn’t totally without a purpose. Her role is to be a secondary antagonist and move the plot along by returning Oliver to Billy Joel Dog and friends because she hates having to share her stage/owner with him. She then transitions with fairly little fuss into being a goody but it doesn’t bother me that much because the film is better for having her in it, character inconsistencies be damned.

People like to give Aladdin credit for starting the boom of celebrities bringing their chops to animated movies but Midler turns in a solid comedy turn here. The material is somewhat weak at times but she sells it. I especially like the way she says the word ‘bark’ rather than actually barking.

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Disney are not exactly shy when it comes to including dead parents in their films but rather than offing Jenny’s parents so she can partake in animal antics without their inconvenient protection, Disney opt instead to make them neglectful as fuck which makes her instant bonding with Oliver and her devastation over his disappearance genuinely effective.

The Parents are not in the film and leave Jenny in the care of Winston who appears to be a butler of some sort. He assures Jenny in her first scene that he is confident her Parents will return from their trip in time for her birthday…but his face tells another story…He knows they will continue to let her down and Jenny is pretty despondent about the whole thing. In most kids films the parents would make it home in time for the third act but in this film? Nope. They don’t get back for her birthday despite saying on the phone to Winston that they were on their way after a quick stop off in Rome. Which is all well and good but they have still missed their young daughter’s birthday and not only that…Either Winston and Jenny don’t bother to mention the whole kidnapping ordeal Jenny goes through or her parents don’t consider this a good enough reason to come home as fast as humanly possible…Either way…Jesus.

Jenny’s enthusiasm for Oliver (The ‘Good Company’ montage suggests she is still singing the song about what great pals they are 3 days in to his arrival which speaks to her commitment if nothing else) is quite endearing and I think the actress Natalie Gregory and the animators did a great job making her vulnerable during the scenes where she is roaming the street with her piggy bank trying to get her cat back.

Interestingly the original plan was to bring back Penny from The Rescuers in this movie which…nope. I am so glad they didn’t make this Penny’s ending as that would have been too dark-She finally gets adopted after years of being overlooked/forced into child slavery and then they dump her with their butler while they go on the road leaving her to long for the days when all she had was vermin for company? Too mean Disney! I am not sure why they changed their mind…Was it that it would be too brutal to have Penny be kidnapped a second time? Also what happened to her pet cat from that movie? Were we to understand that he had died and that is why she is so keen to have a new one? And why can’t she hear animals talking in this film but she could in the Rescuers? Wouldn’t that mess with a kids head if one day you could chat away to mice and cats and then suddenly radio silence? Whatever the reason they redesigned the kid to give her a more hip look (are those stick on earrings? I hope they are stick on earrings.) and changed the name from Penny to Jenny (inspired) and I think she was better for it.

Speaking of the human characters, one thing that has changed for me over the years is my view on Fagin. As a kid I viewed him as an antagonist. I am not sure if it was the design or his initial plan when Oliver comes back to hold him for ransom but I sure as Hell found him creepy as a scrappy youngster. I don’t think I went as so far to boo when he came on screen but I had limited time for his bullshit. These days I find him a lot more sympathetic if a bit baffling. Sure he is kind of cowardly around Sykes and whines a lot about his circumstances but there is a fundamental decency that isn’t present in the source material (the anti semantic message from the book is thankfully absent unless there is some subtext I am missing) that create some great character moments. While I make fun of the whole getting your dogs to steal for you thing he does treat them as loving pets more than employees. After his unfortunate meeting with Sykes where he learns he only has 3 days to pay him back he is touched when his dogs show concern and he immediately softens and they all settle in while he reads aloud what appears to be some kind of dog porn they all enjoy.

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Fagin’s attempt to solve his problem via a pretty amusing ransom note (‘Dear very rich cat owner person…’) leads to a couple of moments of humanity that stood out to me on viewing the film as an adult. He might not stand up to Sykes but his practice speech before he stutters and panics through the real thing feels realistic because it is a familiar problem. His silent but angry response when Billy Joel Dog is attacked by Sykes’s own dogs suggests a back bone forming and it is pretty heart warming to watch his conscious get the better of him when his own life is on the line. As soon as he realises that Jenny is just a kid with shitty parents and there is no big pay off coming he reunites her with Oliver. Sure he fails to confess his part in her misery and is unable to keep her from being abducted by Sykes but he in many ways is just as vulnerable as her only he doesn’t have a butler looking after him. You get a sense he formed his ‘gang’ via street dogs because he doesn’t know how to interact with humans and while this is not the main focus of the story and might be me reading too much into it, I thought this was a nice touch.

Fagin is a guy with no education, money or prospects who eats dog biscuits and got in way over his head. It is hard not to feel sorry for him and Dom DeLuise does a good job of selling the different shades to such a sad character without making it too depressing.

I like that they made an effort to make the human characters more than background players. The A plot might be Oliver finding his way in the world but Jenny and Fagin are heavily involved in that narrative and interact with the animals in a way that you don’t often see in a film like this. They don’t get tossed to the side like the humans in 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp when the ‘real’ adventure begins…It is their story too and so they are rounded characters that are well animated and well performed.

I think it is telling that the scenes without the talking animals still work and still engaged me as a viewer. While logically a lot of what the humans do don’t make much sense, in the context of a cartoon where a dog can leap from the top of moving car to another moving car without getting splatted it is a nice touch to go beyond the cute factor of the animals and have the poor but warm and rich but lonely characters have personality.

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So Oliver gets sent packing by Georgette who facilitates his “rescue” by the gang but, unlike my synopsis suggested, there is no dilemma for Oliver and he insists he wants to be with Jenny leaving Dodger believably hurt. Fagin sees Oliver’s fancy collar and drops off a ransom note and meeting spot at the address on the tag leading to Jenny setting out in the dark to set the finale in motion. Sykes snatches the kid when he sees Fagin’s heart has grown three sizes and, even though I was hoping Winston was about to go all ‘Man on Fire’ on Sykes, the gang band together to get her back instead leading to possibly the most well regarded scene in the film.

While the actual rescue is pretty routine (there is even the classic fake pizza delivery bit, but God save me I love that) the subsequent chase scene through the graffiti coated subway system leading to the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty great. The film disposes of the villains in a solidly brutal fashion with Syke’s dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes himself getting struck by a train just as the others manage to inexplicably escape. It is over pretty quickly but it is a satisfying sequence if only for the classic ‘villain loses his cool’ moment as Sykes stops being a man and becomes a monster: Driving his fancy Cadillac scraping and screeching through the underground, destroying the gear stick, smashing through the window with his bare hand to grasp at the terrified kid on the hood of his car…I love it when previously slick villains start to lose their shit.

The film knows what its strongest asset is though: It ends on a reprise of Why Should I Worry? as Billy Joel Dog and the gang zip in and out the New York traffic singing loudly about how ace it is to be poor. This scene is the manifesto of the movie. A largely non threatening, family friendly version of New York inhabited by a rag tag gang of animals delivering an upbeat melody that stays in your head long after the credits stop rolling. And yes. Whether you like it or not, and I LOVE it, that song will stay in your head.

I wish the same could be said for every aspect of this film…However…

 

 

What Doesn’t Work:

 

This is one of the those films where the strong moments (clever shots, good tunes, cool chase scene) seem to be balanced out with elements that are hardly worth commenting on. Nothing bad exactly. But when there are moments in a film which hint that there is interesting talent working on it who want to make something good and worthwhile but then ¾ of the film is made up of lazy/safe/forgettable/filler it is all the more frustrating. It is like you can hear the producers looking at their watch and going: ‘I have dinner reservations at 7…can we not just have Cheech Marin’s character get electrocuted in a comedy way even though electricity will be dangerous later and do a funny line before passing out?’

Let’s start with the doggy gang. So, by my memory, we have Einstein who is stupid. I see what they did there. Francis who is like Frasier Crane but a dog. Rita who…is a girl. She has a couple of lines and a bit of a song. She appears to have a history with the baddy dogs, Roscoe and DeSoto, which is kind of cool…She is nearly interesting but doesn’t get enough screen time. And then there is Cheech Marin Dog aka Tito. Just…No. Not funny.

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The success of comic relief characters comes down to personal taste but Cheech Marin Dog didn’t really do it for me. He is not even as annoying as Black Cauldron’s Gurgi (in fairness I have been in traffic accidents funnier than Gurgi so that point barley counts) he just thoroughly failed to amuse me. I thought Bette Midler’s attempts to inject worth into lines like ‘I broke a nail!’ were fair and Billy Joel Dog had his moments almost entirley due to how ridiculous he was a concept: A cool dog with a neckerchief, bad puns and the voice and piano skills of Bily Joel will always be joyful. Sorry.

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But the film relies too much on Cheech’s fast talking wise cracks being funny and they just aren’t. A half hearted attempt at flirtatious banter between him and Georgette was especially grating as it is one of my least favourite tropes-You know, when the female character (usually female anyway) claims she can’t stand the male but he persists in the foolhardy belief that she will admit her true feeling soon and he is usually right because the same person who writes his arrogant, creepy behaviour also gets to write how the other character responds to it. At one point Cheech Marin Dog literally says: ‘I think she likes me!’ just after being slapped for kissing her. And I groaned so loudly that you probably heard me.

Do you get what I mean? If you are going to do the same stuff that every other film does, people are going to struggle to remember your movie but if you don’t bother to come up with something better then either A) You don’t care about the quality of your work or B) You assume your audience wants something familiar and unchallenging so you swap creativity for stuff they can’t distinguish from a billion other films they have seen or C) You don’t have the time or budget to correct what isn’t working. Make your choice A, B or C. The end result is the same either way though.

Anyway, the gang as a whole don’t get developed enough or spend enough time with Oliver to justify their claim that he is family to them. He is with them for less than a whole day so any attempt to make this convincing involves quite the shortcut. Oliver being brought back is necessary to the plot but his reaction to it is a weaksauce attempt at conflict that doesn’t really lead to anything except Dodger sulking for a few seconds. After all, the film ends with Oliver getting to stay with Jenny and he and Dodger say a brief and pretty heartless goodbye (‘You’re ok for a cat’) and off he goes, his life the same as before Oliver was in it. It would seem Jenny’s generosity only stretches to the cat and not the clearly ill probably homeless man who just gave her a single shoe for her birthday but anyways, it’s fiiiine because why should we worry etc.

Now in defence of the film (I can feel the hardcore O&C fans sharpening their…what do losers use as weapons? Never mind…) the events of Oliver Twist happen pretty fast too-I am pretty sure Oliver ends up getting caught the first day he goes out on the job in the book so perhaps it was less about lazy story telling and more about being true to the source material…But in the book when Oliver is forced back to the gang it is certainly not because he is considered family. The Oliver in the book is only ever a tool for other, more intelligent characters to take advantage of whereas here we have to buy that they care about him and we have to care about that…It is a stretch is all I am saying. They don’t do a bad job of fleshing out some of the characters but we don’t spend enough time with Fagin’s gang to feel emotionally wounded by Oliver’s decision to stay where the money is.

Oliver is pitched as the lead character although you could make a viable claim for Billy Joel Dog being the one you are invested in. But Oliver’s name is on the poster so let’s just all admit he is kind of boring. The film can’t decide if he capable or not and it just means he has qualities that all screenwriters give characters they don’t know what to do with: He is feisty but easily startled, naive but won’t be pushed around, he can hold his own but needs to be looked after…Oh my God guys just pick a lane! His story is rushed as Hell and goes by so quickly that it undermines the suffering he endures in the first song. If the film committed to the fear and uncertainty in that opening number, he would have learned a lot more but actually…what does he learn? How does he grow? What is the point to any of this? He got lucky, then luckier still. That’s it. He appears to be about to go on a crazy adventures to earn his happy ending but really he just gets passed around until it is time for the film to be over.

I wasn’t sure where to place Sykes in this review. I like his death (What? The fear in his eyes was good and he went BOOM when the train hit him… Please don’t analyse me too closely…) and I guess he is believably intimating. However I think he comes under the heading of one of the least interesting Disney villains for me and as with the Horned King I am baffled as to how many fans he has online. Sure it is kind of cool to have a character just doing his job and not being evil by birth or through magic or anything like that but he isn’t fleshed out past having a couple of hobbies (he builds models apparently) and, again, none of his lines go beyond clichés and his motivation can be summed up thusly:

 

While Disney have always adapted very, very loosely from their source material I do feel the characters in this film are not as memorable as other versions of Oliver I have seen in part because they are a lot softer in nature despite the harshness of their surroundings. I would be willing to bet a lot of people who watched this film as a child don’t remember much about the individual characterisations as adults and there is a reason for that. There are a lot of clichéd tropes, predictable punch lines and obvious character trajectories that are pretty rushed and mean the emotional beats don’t land as well as they might if the pacing/script came out a little better.

For example, Sykes getting hit by a train is a great moment of ‘holy shit-did they just go there???’ that is instantly undermined by the seriously overdone: ‘Oh no-Is the main character dead? Sure looks dead…Better not check let’s just cry-Oh wait he’s fine’ trope. It seriously does my head in: When they write it in do they imagine any person in the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Oliver died or not? Or is it just another thing to tick off from their checklist of stuff that must be included in the final act of an animated movie when the running time is a bit short?

Oliver’s happy ending doesn’t come from any major sacrifice. There is no Nancy character as far as I can make out. Ok, maybe I should stop comparing the film to the book/other Oliver movies but there is a reason I keep returning to that well: They use a lot of the same names and story beats as the Dickens novel but have abandoned so much of what made that story compelling which leaves me with the question: Why bother?

The idea of a doggy gang of criminals makes no fucking sense. I can understand a group of innocent kids being good cover for a crime gang but who isn’t noticing a Great Dane taking their wallet? No wonder Fagin was failing so hard at life.

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I just don’t get why they didn’t either make this an all talking animal story or a human only story or just abandon the whole Oliver Twist in New York with a Cat stuff all together. Perhaps if there had been less restrictions due to elements that had to be included to justify the adaptation they could have allowed themselves more freedom to be creative with how they told the story.

Dickens meets Disney could have been great. New York animals turning to crime meets Disney could have been great. What we got was entertaining enough and writing it off as a cash grab is certainly unfair. But there is a reason it has flown under the radar and is not considered part of the revitalisation of the brand: It takes more than a couple of tight songs to make a classic. Oliver may end the film with more friends than he started but he was never destined to be one of the popular kids.

That’s all still to come…

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‘You can’t sit with us!’

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

It is a shame the final product is so middle of the road because some of the scenes (the subway chase, the Good Company segment) suggests there is a heartfelt and exciting story buried under the Cheech Marin shtick and the rush to get to the end. Overall it is demonstrably not one of the more memorable Disney films no matter what the rabid fan base shriek at you but it holds a special place for me due to the soundtrack alone.

 

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Angry dogs chasing Oliver, Sad Billy Joel Dog noise, Dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes getting hit by a train…

Holy shit Sykes getting hit by a train is dark…Let’s take another look…

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Best Song:

 

While I actually think Good Company might be more deserving I have to give it to Why Should I Worry? I still think this might be one of my favourite Disney songs as it never fails to brighten my day.

 

Thanks Billy Joel Dog.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Look at this film…Isn’t it neat? No Disney collection could be complete without The Little Mermaid (1989)

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The Rescuers Review

The Rescuers (1977) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

I was mildly baffled very early on in my first viewing of ‘The Rescuers.’ I knew that the film was based off the books by Margery Sharp but in the opening credits Disney declared that the story was ‘Suggested by ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘Miss Bianca’ by Margery Sharp.’ What happened to based on or inspired by? What suggested by actually suggests is they begrudgingly acknowledge the base idea/characters but their version has very little in common with the text. Either way, it seems a little disrespectful. Still, I doubt she cared: As a result of the film, all 9 of her ‘Rescuers’ books ended up on various best seller lists.

Some people cite this as the very first film that Walter Disney had nothing at all to do with but believe or not that still isn’t the case. ‘The Rescuers’ went into preproduction in 1962 when Walt was very much still alive. The actual book that is called ‘The Rescuers’ is about a Norwegian poet trapped in a prison who is visited by some mice who are part of an organisation that send in rodents to cheer up incarcerated individuals. I read it once at school. It was pretty good. Walt felt it all sounded a bit gloomy and would work better if it was about a Polar Bear named Willie. Because…Y’know. Willie the Polar Bear. Who wouldn’t want to rescue that guy? ‘Suggested by’ indeed…

But then he died (Disney, not Willie the Polar Bear) and they quietly scrapped the polar bear shit and took the lead from the literary sequel to ‘The Rescuers’ ‘Miss Bianca’ to focus the story on a kidnapped child. Much more Disney’s speed.

It took 4 years and a lot of man power: After a couple of public missteps, and many whispers that the Studio was nothing without their leader, everyone involved wanted a mega hit and were not taking any chances. Leading the animation team was none other than Don Bluth. Does the name ring a bell? For some of you it will. Others maybe not. But for now let’s leave it at that…

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For now.

Now these reviews are for fun and not especially focused on the behind the scenes stuff that I am less interested in, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to talk a little about Disney’s 9 Old Men. And now is as good a time as any as I believe this was the final Disney feature that they all worked on. These guys were the core animators and subsequent directors at the studio from ‘Snow White’ onwards and I understand the name was coined by Walt himself. As individuals and as a gang they are responsible for some of the most lauded work in animation and, significantly, supported new up starts with their work at Disney and beyond. They are all deceased now but their legacy lives on in the incredible work they produced and it is fair to say that they left their mark on celluloid:

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Stand down men. You did it.

So did the hard work on ‘The Rescuers’ pay off? Some of the animators have publicly stated that this was the best work they did post-Walt and the critics agreed. Many people saw ‘The Rescuers’ as a sign that Disney was still in the movie game. However, it would be their last big success until 1989.

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When’s it my turn? Not yet…

Despite this being considered a glorious highlight of 70’s Disney, that is not a competitive field and generally speaking it is not usually cited as one of the best or most memorable films overall. One of the more famous stories comes from the recall of the VHS edition back in 1999. It turned out of one the animators was either A) not so happy at work or  B) had an interesting sense of humour and no sense of proportion because during one of the flying scenes it was possible to spot a naked woman in the background in one of the windows. Now, normally these kinds of Disney controversies are either debatable or hold no water whatsoever (there are a lot of those during the renaissance era) but this was…errr…unmistakable:

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Bernard’s face says it all really…

Pornography in a family film aside (I type that far too often…) what of the rescuing mice? Onwards!

 

Did I see it as a child? 

I did see it a few times at my first babysitter’s house, but I owned and was completely enamoured with the sequel and when I think of The Rescuers, that is the movie I think of. But we have some time before we get to that. I do remember having a cassette tape of Disney songs with a song from this film that used to make me cry and some of the images triggered some really nostalgic memories…

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Not this FYI.

I was quite obsessed with Miss Bianca as a very young child: Was it because she was an adventurous woman in a man’s world? Nope. It was the purple outfit. I LOVED it. In my defence I was 4. Very few people had attempted to explain the importance of having positive female role models to me.

On that subject though, I stumbled across this fantastic blog about Heroine’s in pop culture that I thoroughly recommend. This post is about the awesome Miss Bianca and while I will be talking about her in the body of the review I would encourage you to read this because it is great (It talks about her role in the forthcoming sequel though, so if you want to avoid the very smallest of spoilers for a 25 year old film, then hold off): http://swanpride.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/honoring-the-heroine-miss-bianca/

Going back to my childhood for a moment, I loved having both her and Bernard in model form:

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Look at them go!

One day, my friend Amanda and I were playing with them in the garden and invented a game which involved throwing them up in the air with a cry of: ‘Here goes Bianca!’ and ‘There goes Bernard!’ We were preschool age if that helps you understand why this was fun…Anyway I must have hurled Bernard with too much enthusiasm because he sailed into next door’s garden.

So I went and rang the doorbell, with some trepidation. You might be wondering why two 4 year olds were able to wander out of their house and into someone else’s unsupervised…The short and less criminal version is: It was a different time.

Anyway, my elderly neighbour answered the door, listened to my request and went through his house into the back garden to retrieve Bernard. Then he made a mistake. He made us laugh.

‘Am I going to have to leave out some mouse traps?’ he joshed in a good natured voice.

We didn’t just giggle. We roared. To our toddler minds, this man was a comedy God. So I assume you can guess what happened next.

Imagine you have worked hard your whole life, you have retired, you own a nice little property in a small village. You are trying to read your paper or whatever on a lovely Sunday afternoon and you hear, for the 15th time in the space of an hour, your doorbell ring. Surely it couldn’t be them again? You think. But it is. The Children of the Corn with their evil little smiles, innocently insisting they have accidentally hurled the toy mice into your garden. Again. And you know they want you to say your catchphrase. They want the classic material. The golden hits. And even though you think you might vomit if you say it one more time, you have to oblige or the creepy little freaks will never go away.

This went on all afternoon, until finally his slightly less patient wife answered the door. Our faces fell. We had no evidence whatsoever that she was a fellow scholar of comedy after all. But we gave her a chance:

‘Hi. We threw some mice into your-‘

‘You need to stop doing that now.’ She said gently but very, very firmly.

Her Husband was nowhere to be found. I can only assume he was lying on his living floor crying in the foetal position muttering: ‘I can’t say it again…’

We were not put off. Maybe she just needed prompting. So while my friend tried to see if her Husband was visible behind her by literally jumping as high as she could, I fed her the line.

‘Oh. You should maybe put out some mouse-‘

‘I’m sorry girls, but it is a no. Goodbye.’ And the door was closed on our tiny faces.

Crushed we returned to my garden. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Amanda asked: ‘What about Bianca and Bernard?’

I simply jumped the wall and got them myself. It was easy really and I could have done it in the first place.

 

Synopsis:

Penny the orphan and her excellent teddy bear have been kidnapped by a braless woman (we see she has packed one but she never wears it) and her pet crocodiles and is being held in an old ship at Devil’s Bayou for some nefarious purpose. It is up to the Rescue Aid Society, a kind of mouse UN, to sort this shit out. The cool as a cucumber Hungarian delegate Miss Bianca volunteers for the task and requests a superstitious but good hearted janitor named Bernard to accompany her…

 

What Works: 

This is the first Disney film to have a pre-credits sequence and I really enjoyed it as an introduction to the film. Everything is shrouded in shadow and gloom as a little girl creeps out to throw a message in a bottle into the water, while two smirking crocodiles (the internet debate if they are alligators, but I am plumping for crocs, may the spirit of Steve Irwin strike me down if I am wrong) watch. It sets us up with a couple of little mysteries. Who is the girl? Who is the message for? Who are the crocodiles? It is not instantly clear what is happening which makes a refreshing change of pace for Disney who usually like to spell out the story in the first couple of minutes.

Even the opening song, ‘Rescue Me’ is something really different. It is sang from the perspective of the bottle and the accompanying melody and especially the images are all melancholy and beautifully crafted.

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Greetings from Sad Island! Depression at the bottom of every coconut!

Ever since I was a child I remember being fascinated by the concept of a message in a bottle and on the frequent occasions I went to the beach I would always be on the look out for one so I really do love the way this film starts.

Remember how I mentioned the head animator was Don Bluth? Well, tonally this feels like one of his classic movies, in that it manages to balance considerable darkness with some understated hope in a way that can be accessible for children without talking down to them, which is a massive point in its favour. The opening moments are a good example of this.

The next scene is our introduction to the International Rescue Aid Society whose meeting takes place within the actual UN building. For the record, as a legitimate fully Scottish person I’d like to point out that kilts are formal wear reserved for distinct occasions such as weddings and are generally not worn to work meetings. Sorry America.

I love stories that are set in our world but have to show it from a different perspective. For example I always loved the concept of Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ because you have to think outside the box to make their world work within ours. The mice in this film are of a similar size to Borrowers and therefore there are some great bits of visual creativity to show how they get about, like using a comb as a ladder, and how they hold their meeting inside some forgotten luggage. I love things like this. See how many little details can be spotted in just one shot:

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During the song ‘Rescue Aid Society’ we are introduced to our main characters and again, we don’t get them just stating who they are and want they want out of life like so many Disney protagonists. We infer from what we are shown. Like Bernard the janitor singing along outside with such passion. We don’t need a monologue or even an ‘I want’ song to see that this guy desires to be part of what is going on inside.

Enter Miss B. And again, the entrance says it all. She is running late but she still stops to squirt her perfume and makes a hell of a first impression with her sassy, confident wiggle. That might sound somewhat sexualised but it really isn’t: She is sexy as cartoon mice go, sure. But that is not her sole reason to be admired. There is a confidence to her strut, a self assuredness that is rarely so well illustrated in female characters who so often can be reduced to one word tropes. In short, she works it:

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I suspect she was late on purpose so she could walk in like this.

So we establish the main flaw in sending important information via a body of water. The message is virtually unreadable. Oops. But there is enough information for Bianca to ask for the assignment. After a bit of ‘But you are a woman! Most unorthodox!’ hand wringing, it is deemed appropriate for her to pick a buddy and unsurprisingly she goes for the awkward janitor mouse. So one of them is a blue collar worker and the other has ovaries! How on Earth will they succeed at anything that doesn’t involve crying in a Mike Leigh film???

Well as Bianca enthusiastically predicts, they make a great team. Eva Gabor (Previously taking the lead in ‘The Aristocats’) is great as the dazzling and effervescent Miss Bianca and Bob Newhart’s distinctive stammering delivery is a nice counterbalance to her certainty that they will succeed. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have recorded their dialogue together (standard practice dictates this rather knowledge) but their chemistry is great. Disney are quite restrained about their burgeoning romance: While it is clear Bernard likes Bianca and she is fond of him, the front and centre plot is not whether they will end up together.

There is quite a lot of peril thrown at our leads throughout the film, and in one scene when they are being pursued by crocodiles and Bianca is all ‘Bernard help!’ I found myself rolling my eyes and writing: ‘Come on B!’ in my notes. I wanted her to not be a damsel in distress so bad I could taste it…But then she saves him from danger a bit later later and I relaxed my guard a bit: They rely on each other. He is easily overwhelmed and a little stuck in his ways, while she is gung-ho about everything without being totally tone deaf to the needs of others. She brings as much to the mission as he does and this makes the pairing pleasing to me. They are a team of equal value more than most male/female pairings are in films.

One of their best shared qualities is the ability to inspire and motivate others, often simply from leading by example. They don’t go on and on about being brave, they just are. When they meet some other mice who live in Devil’s Bayou they gain their support quickly as it becomes apparent that the pair, Luke and Ellie May, knew about the kidnapped child. It makes you wonder why it took the arrival of Bernard and Bianca for them to rally round and make a plan to help the girl…It might have something to do with the fact that Luke is constantly drinking what can really only be petroleum. But maybe it is because they needed assurance that mice are capable of saving the day. The Rescuers also convince a desolate Penny that there is hope just as she had lost heart. They seem able to call people to action just by being themselves.

I can see why. Even when they consider giving up, Bianca hears the music of the ‘Rescue Aid Society’ in her head and reminds Bernard that they agreed to take on the mission and it really is as simple as that. I found this more moving than if they had had a cliché falling out and an extended period of separation only for them to realise much, much later that they had to do the right thing: Their attitude is consistent, they believe in their cause and the only thing in their way are some pretty intimidating obstacles, but they keep their chin up and get on with it. It is nice to see. You want them to triumph and, most importantly, you want them to triumph together:

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So I believe in the pairing, what else? Well the action sequences just get better and better as the film progresses. As I said, there is a lot of peril. While some of the moments are undercut by it being a tad predictable (Let the record show that films have taught me that if a plane I am on is crashing I can just open my umbrella at the last minute and I will not be smushed to death) but the pacing and the style of the scenes just kept improving. The crazy swamp chase? Good. The crocodiles trapping them in an organ while the humans try and shoot them? Great. The cave filling up with water? Fantastic.

I love that cave scene. Penny is being forced to look around for something called the Devil’s Eye because the villains, Medusa (subtle) and Snoops can’t fit down there themselves. Despite several escape attempts, Penny is always returned and forced to go into the caves again. On this occasion she is more motivated than usual because Medusa has stolen her beloved teddy bear. As someone who has a childhood toy who was my friend through rough times, I was stricken by this and wrote down: ‘If anything happens to that Bear I am going to flip.’ and when Medusa tries to hang on to him in order to store the diamond I added: ‘Bitch was going to keep teddy. Kill her’ I meant every word too. Not ok, Medusa. Not ok.

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I would cut the inside of her mouth with a rusty blade if she took my-What? What are you staring at me like that for?

So anyway that’s how they end up in the cave, and what a set. Water geysers, an abandoned pirate skeleton (what’s his story?) and of course the big fuck-off diamond. It is genuinely beautiful. The colour choices was great and I have to admit I would put a frightened child into serious danger to get it:

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I really like shiny things.

The atmospheric silence except for drips of the cave and the threat of the water always present, the vulnerability of two small mice and a little girl in that environment…It is kind of intense. I enjoyed it.

The supporting characters are a bit hit and miss for me, but there is enough of them that works that they deserve a mention. Evinrude the Dragonfly is that rare thing: Mild comedy relief in a kid’s film that doesn’t make me want to snap my own neck. His communication through buzzing alone and some great little reaction shots, plus the fact they don’t overuse him, makes him an enjoyable character to cheer on.

The other members of the gang that live in Devil’s Bayou are fun too, although what is with the proportions of the animals? How is a turtle, a rabbit, an owl and some mice all the same size? Rufus the cat, from the Morningside Orphanage, who fills our heroes in on the possible whereabouts of Penny, is a delight. I especially love the way he tolerates the various uncomfortable ways Penny holds him.

While I am not crazy about either Medusa or Penny (for further details scroll down) they share a scene which I actually think is quite brave for a film like this. The set up begins in an orphanage flashback when Penny is totally crushed following another Adoption Day going by without…Wait. Hold the rotatory phone. Adoption Day. At an Orphanage? Holy shit, what a concept! Is that a thing??? I know quite a bit about the Care system, in my own country anyway, and I am pretty sure they don’t put the kids on display for perspective parents like at a mall. Or a dog show. But that is exactly what the film implies as Penny tells Rufus that a nice set of parents showed up and seemed to be considering her but left with a lovely little red haired orphan (Annie?) and that she will never get picked because she isn’t pretty. Yikes.

But this isn’t a throw away line. Later in the film, Medusa is peeling off her face-

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And informs Penny that nobody would want to adopt ‘a homely little girl like you.’ Now throughout the film Penny tries to run away, talks back to the adults, isn’t intimated by the threat of being shot, and isn’t even afraid of big ass crocodiles. But when someone reinforces her belief that she is ugly she is totally inconsolable and everything from the way she closes the door, to her walking slowly to her room is done in a defeated way. It is pretty heartbreaking.

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‘It’s going to be another 25 odd years until Linda Perry writes ‘Beautiful.’ How am I supposed to know what to do until then?’

Initially I was annoyed by the inclusion of the ‘homely’ comment directed towards a child but then I thought about it for a few seconds and realised that clearly we are supposed to see how wrong it is that a brave, sweet, shade-throwing kid like Penny, who hasn’t even hit adolescence yet, has been made to feel less than due to looks. Disney often give the message that beauty is all (the goodies are hot, the baddies are not etc) and here they seem to be saying: ‘Isn’t that a terrible message? This little girl is great as she is’ Is it hypocritical? Kind of. But each film is a new story so leaving behind what Disney traditionally do, I think it was quite bold of them to show the impact criticising someone’s face can have on their self esteem here.

There are some odd little surreal moments in the film that really made me laugh, intentionally or not. When Bianca and Bernard get on an albatross to leave the city, Bernard is a nervous wreck. Like Newhart in real life, he doesn’t like flying. They are going really fast and Bianca assures him that it is fine and she runs red lights all the time. Wait what? How? Does she have a car? A motorbike? Is it a small mouse sized automobile or does she hitch rides? Did a Disney film just condone dangerous traffic behaviour? Add Bianca’s wild past to the list of never to be made Disney prequels I would kill to see.

In the scene where Penny runs away, all the villains are out looking for her. When Snoops gets her back, he sends a message to Medusa in fireworks that spells out: ‘GOT GIRL’ I had to pause the film just to process this. There MUST have been an easier way to tell her! She is just out on the water, couldn’t he have shouted the same message? And if he was worried about attracting attention, maybe don’t advertise your kidnapping skills in large exploding lights in the sky? And how expensive must that many fireworks have been? And how did he have time to set it up? How long would that take? Can you even get fireworks to spell out words? Honestly, I laughed for about 35 minutes.

If you think that is a stupid nit to pick wait till you get a load of this: For some reason, the fact that all the mice wear clothes and the people never comment on this just confuses the hell out of me. Medusa freaks out when she sees the mice and shouts for help but doesn’t comment on the fact that they are both wearing little hats. (she also tries to kill them with a shot gun…who does that?) And when the swamp gang attack her, why doesn’t she give up the diamond and pick up the tiny mouse with a piny and a rolling pin that can talk? I bet you that would be worth a hell of a lot more than even the Devil’s Eye. But no. We just have to accept there are mouse clothes shops and nobody who sees a mouse wearing clothes is surprised by that. Maybe Cinderella branched out with a boutique after her film ended.

When Penny finally gets her happy ending, Bernard and Bianca are watching it on the news. Incidentally, the other orphans sing: ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’ to her only adding the verse: ‘She’s got a new Mom and Dad! Hooray for new Mom and Dad!’ A refrain which has been stuck in my head my whole life. I genuinely still sing it at baffled passers by sometimes. So Penny is asked about her adventure by a news reporter and Penny proceeds to give a shout out to her mice friends and the reporter’s reaction is priceless. She clearly thinks Penny has lost her damn mind. I loved it because it made me think of this:

So the rescuers successfully rescued Penny…But what couldn’t they rescue about this film?

 

What Doesn’t Work:

Well apart from the above examples, and I don’t know how funny all of those things were supposed to be, the film is pretty light on laughs. This seems like a mean critique when looking at how subtle a lot of the little character moments are and it is for sure a very sweet film. Not every film has to have me rolling around laughing. But coming off the back of some of Disney’s funnier films, I couldn’t help noticing that whenever the pace dragged, I flagged and some decent comedic writing may have helped that.

There is a scene right after the allocation of the mission where Bianca suggests they take a short cut through the zoo which just feels like a waste of time. I suppose it sets up their characters some more but it just goes nowhere…It could be cut and nobody would miss it.

Penny the Orphan is kind of annoying. Most of that is the pitch of the voice, and the fact that she is just a bit too cutesy for my liking, which is a shame because she has some good line readings and I actually think her acting is ok. It isn’t really her fault that her voice makes me vomit carrots and that children are always written as being so…Innocent, I guess. Like when the mice first actually see her she and her teddy bear are praying that everyone she cares about gets blessed. Awwwww. I guess the moment would have lost something if she had been picking her ass and smelling it when they first met her but still…I prefer a character to have traits that I can decide if I find charming or not instead of hitting me over the head with a mallet that says: ADORABLE RIGHT? on it.

Medusa has some good moments but within the first second I saw her I wrote: ‘That’ll be the villain then’ and it really is all a bit predictable and one dimensional. This wouldn’t be that bad except I quickly noticed something: Her design, her car, her line readings (courtesy of legend Geraldine Page, damn this is a good cast) all felt very, very familiar. Very familiar. Like, Disney have done this villain already…

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Oh there it is…

Yeah we already have one Cruella and we don’t need another. It turns out, and I found this out after I had watched the film, this was originally going to be another vehicle for ‘101 Dalmatians’ MVP Ms De Vil and it shows. It feels pretty lazy and I don’t think Page’s work is quite distinct enough to get past this and the ‘villain because evil’ limitations of the character.

Ultimately, I think wittier dialogue, better structure (in one scene they conduct a plan that they quickly abandon for reasons I am still not totally clear on) and some more surprising set pieces may have made it more memorable as it is one of those films that, while there are some good moments, it struggles to stand out when put up against the back catalogue. The animation is good but not fantastic: Again nothing that really stands out. I think it is a film that is easy to be fond of, hard to love.

 

Conclusion: 

I can see why they were pleased with it. ‘The Rescuers’ set a prescient that would go on to define a lot of animation in the 80’s: The style, atmosphere, tone, the likeable characters and one of the best pairings Disney ever did would all be emulated and expanded upon in future work by Bluth and his contemporaries. However as the years have gone by it has faded in importance because part of the problem of testing the waters with a new style is you don’t quite get everything right because you have nothing to refer to: It has very few stand out moments and some of the ideas and characters don’t quite work for me. However I think it deserves to be seen and would recommend it, if only for the fabulousness of Bianca and that weird bit with the fireworks.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Crocs, scary bats, dead pirate and legit child abuse.

 

Best Song: 

I didn’t talk about the music much in the review…the soundtrack feels much more Bluth than Disney and I kind of missed the ‘Disney factor’ of the full on musical. The soft female vocals is all a bit namby-pamby and it was all the more disappointing when I found out it could have been The Carpenters…The Carpenters, man! But I didn’t want to declare it as a thing that didn’t work because the songs are largely effective in the context of the film. I have always had a soft spot for ‘Someone’s Waiting for You’ which actually used to make me cry as a very young kid. I was dead sensitive that way apparently…It is no ‘Baby Mine’ but it is still quite…tear making. If you are that way inclined:

 

 

 

Next Time: Two animals who are usually enemies become the very best of friends…What could possibly go wrong? The Fox and the Hound (1981)

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Review

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) Review

What do I know about the film?

Queen without Freddie. The Jacksons without Michael. Spice without Ginger. Disney without Walt. What is the link? They fell apart when they lost their driving creative force. (Yes Ginger was the driving creative force behind The Spice Girls, more on that another day) Of course if you grew up in the Disney renaissance era as I did, the idea that Disney struggled without their leader seems like melodrama but if you want evidence that the studio had very little clue of where to go from his death, look no further than ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.’

Released in 1977 4 years after their last full length feature ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is made up 3 pre existing short films with a shoehorned in ending to make it a story. Yep. It took them 4 years to do what anyone with a basic editing app nowadays could do in about 40 minutes. They were lost with no hope of rescue. The great Walt Disney Studios had lost their bounce.

A few months later, their next film was ready to go so ‘Winnie the Pooh’ was basically a freebie but still…4 years. The three shorts that make up the film are ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,’ Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.’ all based on stories told by British writer/poet AA Milne. Milne’s books were a series of small adventures inspired by his Son, the real life Christopher Robin, and the menagerie of toys he carted around with him. It is difficult to overestimate the impact Milne’s stories have had on children, literature and culture as a whole (I am here to focus on the Disney interpretation after all) so I will say only this: They are really rather good.

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He looks…fun. I guess.

 

Most of the reviews of the film that I have managed to track down seem to have been written retrospectively, and are pretty positive with most sources citing ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as the most faithful and charming of the films Disney adapted from traditional British classics. One or two feel they destroyed the integrity of the original stories….

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Integ-integ-How do you say that word again?~Disney Executive

 

But largely, the Disney version of Milne’s tales seem to get a pass from everyone now. Is this deserved?

Well before we get to that let us talk about the real result of these adaptations: As with ‘Peter Pan’ before him ‘Winnie the Pooh’s’ biggest impact on the Disney legacy is marketing. If you think of a thing, chances are that thing exists with one of the Hundred Acre Wood gang on it. Whether you call it shameless, innovative or awww cute it is a fact that is undeniable. If you told me right now you can buy a pregnancy test where Eeyore’s gloomy face pops up to tell you the result and to passive aggressively criticise you for peeing on him, I wouldn’t even blink. It is one of the fundamental truths of our precarious existence: The sun will rise, the tide will flow, stuff has Winnie the Pooh and friends on it.

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The day I don’t laugh at this is the day you find my ice cold corpse.

 

Did I see it as a child?

‘Winnie the Pooh’ was not a massive part of my childhood, which is a bit like casually announcing I hate puppies, sunshine and strawberries (2 out of 3 of those are true…) but bear with me. I was aware of both the books and the Disney version of course, and naturally had a lot of the merchandise because it is literally impossible to get through life without it.

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Is it just me or is this proper creepy? It gives the impression that Pooh Bear’s face has been scraped off…

My favourite of the Winnie the Pooh merch I personally owned was this:

I got given him the morning of my birthday moments before I found out I would not have to attend school that day due to bad weather. It was excellent. Being off school on my birthday, not dangerous storms. Sadly, gosh this still hurts, I reluctantly left him behind on top of my chest of drawers when I had to do a bunk from my family home due to very dramatic reasons and he was very much lost in the shuffle. I still miss him a bit.

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I genuinely got quite sad remembering that, so here is this again.

 

Going into this review, I had a vague memory of some of the songs, mostly because I owned quite a few of the Disney sing along song video tapes. One of the songs I thought I knew was not in the film, because it turned out it was the theme tune to a TV show from the late 80’s early 90’s called ‘The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.’ It is tonally very different to the music in the 70’s film so how I thought the two were linked, I don’t know. I think it is just the way memories get all mixed up during the age you just consume everything that is put in front of you:

As you can see, this seems to be a very…American take on ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and the only thing that I recall about the show is the above theme song which is quite sweet. Some might say sickly sweet but, eh.

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Whatever Pooh does in his private life is none of our business…

One of the lines in it, brilliantly, I just straight up stole without consciously realising it for a song I ‘wrote’ when I was about 8 and had a pop band. So this song has been pretty nostalgia-tastic. Although largely irrelevant so moving on…

Despite being fairly certain I have not seen the 70’s version the whole way through and not exactly pouring over the text as a child, The characterisations of the characters are firmly ingrained in my brain, as they are in most people’s. The ‘Winnie the Pooh’ gang are marketable in part because there are a lot of them and they are all different. This and this alone is enough to make them fodder for some of the most over wrought and self indulgent philosophical and psychological analysis I have ever seen riddled throughout the veins of pop culture.

I bring this up here, because I predict somebody at some point down the line will ask me why I didn’t point out that each of the characters represents a mental health disorder/a substance abuse problem/ a kind of sexual deviance in the review. Perhaps you are that person and you will have assumed I didn’t ‘pick up on it.’ No. No I just…don’t want to ‘diagnose’ Tigger. Fuck off.

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Pooh Bear is sooo sick of your pop psychology he has thrown up Piglet. Is this what you wanted?!

If you are interested in this sort of chat (and why not?) then feel free to Google ‘Winnie the Pooh theories’ and fill your boots. I won’t be joining you. Unless you find one about the fact that nearly every character in the Disney adaptation has a different speech impediment of some kind because that is interesting…You see? Even I can’t help it. And Having just got comfortable on my high horse…I did chuckle at this…Pooh Bear has a problem:

Enough time wasting! Who is the Pooh Bear and what does he want with your children?

 

Synopsis: 

As previously highlighted, there are three distinct sections: Honey Tree, Blustery Day and Tigger Too. There are some perfunctory scenes to tie them together, and the narrative device of…a narrator. Fresh.

We begin in a nursery where some slightly unnerving versions of the characters are placed around the room:

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Good niiiight…

Leading us into a song that introduces us to the world of Christopher Robin, a boy who has a gang of animal buddies who reside in the Hundred Acre Wood. The crew is comprised thusly:

Christopher Robin: The Overlord.
Pooh Bear: CR’s favourite teddy bear.
Piglet: Pooh’s little nervous mate.
Tigger: A happy-go-lucky very bouncy fella.
Eeyore: A sad donkey.
Rabbit: A fuss budget who says things like ‘Heaven’s to Betsy!’
Owl: Who is kind of wise but also a bit nuts.
Kanga/Roo: They…are there. Yep.
Gopher: On loan from the Lady and the Tramp universe. Yeah I don’t get it either.

The first story is about Pooh’s quest for honey which leads to him eventually being stuck in Rabbit’s house where the only solution is the old goose in a bottle scenario where he has to fast in order to emerge. The second is about bad weather. The third is about Rabbit’s frankly appalling quest to break Tigger’s spirit.

 

What Works: 

Winnie the Pooh (seriously…What is with that name?) as a leading character charmed me from the moment he leapt happily over his own name in the rather lovely opening song. The name leaping, getting distracted by a butterfly during his song, and his excellent, very toddler like walk…That was already three things I enjoyed about him and the film had just begun, which is more than many Disney protagonists give me to work with in a full run time. He then goes on to do his stoutness exercises as he celebrates his curves…

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Screw ‘All About That Bass’ Pooh Bear can be ‘short and fat and proud of that’ without slagging off skinny people…

Oh my heart aches with love for him. Let me count the ways:

Firstly, his morning exercises. Done solely to prepare him for his meal. I can think of no other reason to work out, frankly. He is not even alarmed when his head does that Exorcist thing and his kidneys nearly fall out:

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That…shouldn’t happen.

The way he talks, his walk, my God that walk is the best. The little happy wiggle he does before he eats (Yes I do that too):

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I even love that tiny little T Shirt that doesn’t remotely fit him: Don’t we all have clothes we hang on to even though they don’t really fit anymore? Don’t make fun of me. I am short and fat and proud of that, bitches.

So yeah, I like him. Perhaps my favourite thing about Pooh Bear can be summed up in the following quote from early on in the film:

‘A bear of very little brain…So he thought in the most thoughtful way he could think’

Winnie the Pooh is cheerfully stupid. The poor bastard doesn’t even know what a mirror does. And yet there are many moments that show him trying his best to use his brain. Hell, in his spare time, he goes to his thinking spot to sit and do some quality musing. This to me is a most admirable quality.

When most people discover they are not good at something naturally, they will not endure it because people hate tolerating anything that makes them uncomfortable. I lump myself in with this: All it takes is a game of Trivial Pursuit to remind me that I am staggeringly ignorant on a number of topics that most people would consider basic or essential knowledge. Sure, I can name every David Bowie album in order of release but I can’t confidently point to Egypt on a map. But Pooh recognises his stupidity and makes an effort to improve. It is genuinely excellent: He may not be good at it, but he wants to learn. His affable enthusiasm for life is incredibly winning.

As is covered in that sketch I posted above, Pooh’s obsession with honey and his single minded drive to get it, (ok his addiction…there I said it!) kind of makes him, I may or may not be quoting A.A. Milne directly here, behave like a massive douche towards his friends. But I forgive him because here is the thing: It is made clear that he can’t handle more than one thought at once. So when he is hungry, he is consumed by that. The moments where his attention is diverted to his friends lead to some of the sweetest moments in the movie and support my belief that Pooh Bear stops just short of being unlikeable.

Especially with Piglet. There is a great moment where they are having a Hero party for Pooh Bear (Hip-hip Pooh-ray!) and Piglet gives up his house so Owl can live there. Pooh is quick to not only ask Piglet to live with him but quietly check with Christopher Robin if the party can be for both he and Piglet. Would a selfish character happily share his party and his house?

Maybe. But here is the thing: All the characters are kind of obnoxious. But also likeable. Often writers work hard to make their characters ‘every man’ types and in doing so remove any edge or layers as they don’t want to insult the every man by suggesting they might be, gasp, flawed in any significant way. And yet, nearly everyone in this universe has character traits that you will recognise as your own. They are more rounded than most Disney characters in this regard.

I feel like whoever you like best says a lot about the special kind of dickhead you are. For anyone interested, my personal ranking of the Hundred Acre Wood gang goes thusly: Eeyore, Pooh and Tigger make up the top three followed by Piglet, Rabbit and Christopher Robin together and then Owl and then, quite some distance away, Kanga and Roo. (I don’t count the Gopher. More on that later) Make of that what you will…

While one could argue that anything that does work about this adaptation can be credited to Milne’s writing, I honestly feel the highlight of the film is the superb job they did with the cast. Because, aside from Christopher Robin who falls foul of the curse of child acting syndrome, the voice work here is some of the best I have ever heard.

A trend I have noticed since I began this task is that Disney are sometimes quite hit/miss with their casting choices and seem to go with whomever was hanging around the studio at the time…And…well…It doesn’t look like they changed it up for ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Most of the people were working at Disney already in some capacity. Only this time they captured lightening in a bottle.

When I found out that Disney writer Ralph Wright’s sole acting credit in his whole life was voicing Eeyore, I was amazed. The dude’s got vocal chords that are as magical to me as Barry White or something: Just this sound that stops you in your tracks. To think he could have gone undiscovered…with that droll, dry, dark, deep rolling thunder of a voice…His delivery is so…I don’t even have the words. It is just perfect. When I passed the message on, he said:

The voice of Pooh (still finding it funny, FYI) Sterling Holloway, has already come up a bunch of times in these reviews but he deserves extra props here for what must be his finest hour, his tour de force, his magnum opus. That man was born to play a mentally challenged teddy bear. As with Wright, Holloway’s work is like that of a great musician: He makes it look easy but you know if you tried to deliver the same notes in the same way you would look sincerely foolish. Try saying lines like ‘Now would you aim me at the bees, please’ out loud and you will see what I mean:

Paul Winchell brings a huge amount of charisma to Tigger, right down to the laugh which was all his own work. He also ad-libbed the now infamous exit line ‘TTFN: Ta-ta for now!’ Yes. There is much to love about Tigger. But I think we all know what the most WONDERFUL thing about Tigger is:

As you can see, I am failing at telling so have resorted to showing. The work of these actors (And Wright) in this film is so funny, so adorable, so easy to love. While I understand die hard fans of the books not appreciating the Disney gang getting their hands on literary childhood favourites, only the very stodgiest of fogies could fail to offer a standing ovation to the cast of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ who so successfully solidified the characterisations that were on the page.

Christopher Robin may stand out as being arguably the blandest character (something of a contradiction, I admit) but to be honest with you, I love him too. What struck me while watching this film was that Christopher Robin is essentially at least their carer and at most their benevolent God. Every time there is a problem, he is called upon to solve it. He spends his whole life just running around trying to sort out these screw ups. Watching this little boy leap over a fence to get to his troubled friends for the second time it occurred to me that the poor little git is clearly shackled to these losers for life…I kid. I love them. But there is something so… enjoyably accurate about this.

When you are a kid, your views and ideas and your identity are all things you try out while you are still working out who you are going to be. As a result, most adults don’t take you seriously. So in your own universe, of course you are wise, loved and in charge of everybody. Watching Christopher Robin in this movie reminded me of my own childhood games…I was definitely super important. I believe the only person I answered to in my pretend Universe was Gandalf because, even when I was 9, I knew I didn’t have the authority to boss him about. Although I did tease him about his hat and beard. Behind his back. While stabbing Jabberwockies, shooting pink lasers from the safety of my great glass elevator, and occasionally animorphing as part of my ongoing mission to save the world with my friend Erika. I was a bad ass. And apparently incapable of creating my own characters…

A couple of things are becoming apparent here: Firstly, I am surprised I was never sued while at play, and secondly, the universe of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ plays deep into the nostalgia most of us feel for that small window where we are truly young. The final scene, that was added to tie the film together, is Christopher Robin and Pooh saying goodbye because CR is headed to school, to learn the geography that I should have been paying attention to. He and Pooh have a lovely conversation (and play Pooh Sticks!) and CR talks about how nice it is to do nothing and asks Pooh not to forget him as he moves on with his life. Pooh assures him he won’t. The film ends with a paraphrased quote that can be seen on Milne’s memorial stone about how somewhere a little bear is always waiting.

I found it worked really well as an ending, acknowledging the importance of saying goodbye and honouring the role friends play in each other’s lives. I got all choked up.

So many things get explained to children, so many things get taught. But how do we learn how to be an adult? We all have to grow up. While growing up doesn’t mean you have to let go of what you love it does mean facing the real world when you don’t feel ready to. I’ve yet to meet anyone who felt ready to be a grown up. All we can do is try and be brave. And that is why the ending, where CR and Pooh say a little goodbye, was touching. That is why it was beautiful. That is why I very nearly cried.

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But then this thing winked at me and I was fine again…

Because I am not overly familiar with the text, I don’t know exactly how much of the wit in the film to credit to Disney seeing as I believe most of the script comes direct from the book. However, I am reviewing the film so perhaps the important thing to say is that choosing what to take from a book you are adapting is a skill itself. And there are some very funny moments. I even appreciated silly little jokes like Pooh Bear living under the name Mr Sanderz (that is what the sign says) and Pooh Bear having a Pooh-Pooh clock rather than a Cuckoo clock…

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Excellent.

The interplay between the gang is great, helped by the delivery, and there are some great gags. I loved Winnie the Pooh’s attempt to get honey by pretending to be a rain cloud and asking CR to aid the deception by putting up his umbrella and saying ‘Tutt, tutt, it looks like rain’ It felt almost like a line from ‘Airplane!’ and I laughed out loud at how straight they were playing it. It is a kid’s film in how it flows but there is real wit, philosophical musings, (I love the exchange between Pooh and Piglet when the weather picks up: ‘Where are you going Piglet?’ ‘That’s what I am asking myself!’ ‘And what do you think you will answer yourself?’) as well as daft visual gags like Rabbit decorating Pooh’s arsehole when he is stuck in his house. Walt Disney’s favourite joke apparently. Who knew? I did.

Like the best art, it challenges you to think about it on different levels. So while I am leaving in that earlier paragraph about me not diagnosing the characters (You can’t imagine how much I don’t want to do that) I clearly couldn’t help but engage in the fun of looking at the whole thing and searching for meaning in the little moments. After all what else are reviews for? And it is deep. Kids can enjoy it on one level and adults on another. And there is a venn diagram of enjoyment with that, where everyone is getting something from it.

So it is a successful adaptation right? Right??? Errr…

 

What Doesn’t Work:

First of all…Let’s sweat the small stuff. The addition of The Gopher from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ as a character isn’t really necessary. The only cross over I was slightly rooting for was Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman during the scene where Rabbit is lost in the woods…It felt tonally right. Despite the fact that they hang a lampshade on the inclusion of Gopher, making a reference to him not being a character in the book, it just feels…pointless. Why bring him into such an established clique?

There are some crappy continuity errors, so far so 60’s/70’s Disney, like how there are some shots reused and the Piglet shown in the opening song is a completely different design to the one used in the actual film. Speaking of that song, it is odd that Tigger is the only main character who fails to get a shout out. This wrong will be righted again in the future…But at the pace I am moving at it will take about 2 years to get to that film.

Personally I find the third story the weakest simply because Rabbit crosses the line over to ‘actually horrible character’ as he plots to steal Tigger’s bounce rather than say ‘You know that time you wrecked my garden? It really hurt my feelings’ Even after he fails the first time and Tigger has to rescue him from harm he STILL continues to try and steal Tigger’s bounce, leading me to writing down the following note while watching: ‘I’ve gone off you Rabbit, you bounce stealing wanker.’

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Hi Dickhead.

The ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’ sequence is transparently filler and is nearly a carbon copy of the equally pointless musical number ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ from ‘Dumbo’ Now the Heffalumps and Woozles may have been creations belonging to Milne but still why was Disney so determined that children should be shit scared of elephants? While some of the imagery and the song itself is pretty good, it feels more like a retread than an homage and the film gains very little for its inclusion.

Now…we come to the major problem.

Some books are crying out to be adapted into films. As you read, images are conjured in your head and, inevitably, some creative people might see the potential to take the images in their head and create movie magic. Some ideas come alive when correlated with the cinematic format.

But not every book NEEDS a film. If you are going to go to the trouble of making a book into a film it is very important that there is a good reason for you to do so: What will be gained from making the leap that cannot be gained from reading the story or having the story read to you?

The insurmountable issue I have with ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is that it is not a film. It doesn’t flow like a film. It has no stakes, no plot, no drive, no reason to be: And in a way this is right. If they had given ‘Pooh’ a plot (as I assume the TV series and other, future adaptations did) it may well have been unwatchable for me.

As with Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ the power, impact and joy of Milne’s work is the unique way he plays with language and words. But unlike ‘Alice’ Milne’s work is about the mundane and banal. When the narrator promises adventures what he really means is ‘a Teddy Bear is going to get stuck in a hole for a while, till he gets out again’ This is a story book story. Not a film story.

And they knew that. That is why the film, which is masquerading as a whole feature, is stitched together from three different shorts. While package films like ‘Make Mine Music’ are introduced as being made up of several parts, this is supposed to be a correlating contentious story and it clearly isn’t. The seams are visible. The strain on the studio is on display for all to see.

Even the constant references to being in a story book, much more so than any of the previous films, seems almost apologetic: They know these tales are generally reserved for that quiet little space between getting into bed and going to sleep. That is their role, in the great tapestry of children’s literature. Would you make a movie about Lucy and Tom? They don’t do anything! Postman Pat? Ok they did, and look how well that turned out…What about Dr Seuss? Have you SEEN the attempts to stretch those stories out for 2 hours?

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We let this happen. All of us. Nobody even tried to stop them…

The magic of the childhood safety that comes with bedtime stories doesn’t usually translate well to film and adding a plot where none is needed is worse, so I am glad they didn’t try: I can’t emphasise that enough. But the constant references to the story, (‘I nearly bounced right out of the book’) the fact that they lean on this concept throughout, suggest they know they are working in the wrong medium. Which leads me to believe that the respect they show the text in making such a literal translation to the big screen is actually a lack of original ideas. I will say it: ‘Winnie the Pooh’ was made into a movie because of the marketing potential alone.

Would I remove this film from the catalogue based on this assessment? No. I couldn’t deprive the world of this:

And it took me a long, long (checking last time I posted a Disney review) long time to work out what my problem was with ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ Despite the respect they gave the text in staying true to much of it, the end result made me squirm and sigh as I waited for the film to make the jump from children’s story book to full length feature. 70 minutes later, it was clear to me that graduation ceremony was never going to arrive. It doesn’t really work because books like Milne’s don’t belong in Hollywood. They are short and fat and proud of that.

 

Conclusion: 

Is the unquestionable magic of the Hundred Acre Wood destroyed because Disney wanted to make some money from it? No. The characters, the words and the ideas from the books are all there so it was never going to be a total mess. Despite my frustration at the futility of such a literal jump from book to film, ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ is sweet, thought and nostalgia provoking, witty, charming and the cast are on the top of their game. While they work better coming at you from the pages of a story book, people should know these characters. And they always will. There will always be a boy and his bear.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3

While ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’ was too close to ‘Pink Elephants’ for my liking, it still deserves the ‘Scary Tunnel in a Chocolate Factory’ award for needlessly nightmare inducing scene. So much so that while I have counted that scene as 1 Nightmare Inducer (I suppose it is only right the nightmare induces nightmares…) I had to highlight my personal Top 5 Scariest Moments in ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’

5) This arrogant fucker. What’s he so happy about?

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4) These eyes.

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3) The honey pot with legs. Let me repeat that…Honey Pot With Legs.

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2) These two who break character to glare at you…keep watching…there! You see it???

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1) And finally…This weird starey one genuinely freaks me out more than any of the Halloween films:

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Also, there is some really ‘Candyman’ level shit going on with Pooh and the bees. At one point he just starts regurgitating them. It’s not really on.

And finally the creepy Pooh Bear that winks at the end. He is not my friend.

 

Best Song: 

The Sherman Brothers work here is not their best but not their worst either (Cough cough Sword in the Stone coughie cough). There are some suitably pleasing moments though. I am torn between the opening song and the Tigger anthem simply because they were engrained in my brain long before I saw the completed piece and therefore were the ones I enjoyed most when they popped up.

I think it has to be the introduction song, ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ which is just such wholesome loveliness that I just want to make hot coco with two fair sized marshmallows in it and hunker down for a story:

 

 

Next Time: 

It took me a really long time to get to that so about this for an offer? Come back on Sunday and you may have another Disney review! Like with the Studio itself, I am releasing these two nice and close together…

A couple of well dressed mice go looking for an orphan in The Rescuers (1977)

 

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Robin Hood Review

Robin Hood (1973) Review

What do I know about the film?

Post ’66 Disney was a strange time. When you cast a shadow as large as that of Walter Disney, trying to escape from underneath it is like forcing incubator babies to wrestle: Nobody wins. ‘Robin Hood’ was the first of their full length animated features that was not signed off by the big man and it suffered as a result. In what way? Well, first and foremost, financial restraints meant that the studio had to cut costs just to get the film together and it shows.

If for some reason you, like me, have decided to fill most of your spare time with watching Disney films in chronological order you will experience an odd sense of deja vu. Unless you are playing particularly close attention, this is unlikely to bother you. BUT…It is there. Disney reused a LOT of animation around this time and it makes my brain ache to contemplate how often I saw a facial expression, a movement, or shot that made me go…’Have I not…seen that before?’

I urge you to watch the below video (ignore the Christina Aguilera song that accompanies it, it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything) to see what I am talking about. Keep in mind: These are all examples taken from just ONE SONG.

The freakiest point for me is the comparison between Baloo and Little John because when I first found this video I was working on my Aristocats review and at one point I had three Phil Harris’s on screen at once.

So yeah, the whole thing is cheap as hell. Nextly, critics were waaaaay harsh on it and it is currently deemed rotten by rotten tomatoes, which considering ALL the Disney war films are considered fresh just highlights how much ‘Robin Hood’ was dragged through the mud. It is currently placed as the 5th worst animated Disney feature of all time. Now obviously I have not started reviewing it yet so it is too soon for me to say if this is fair (It isn’t. It isn’t even the 5th worst out of the first 21, let alone out of 53) this is just me providing some historical context. So why did this film, which was a box office hit, take such a beating?

Remember that thing I said about it being the first film without Walt’s blessing? Well, the critics were hungry to declare the studio artistically bankrupt following the death of their leader. They couldn’t wait to watch a cartoon about a clever fox and call it a pile of shit…Because…Errr…No I don’t get it either. Spite? Boredom? Are they what kids today call ‘haters?’ Well I guess I can relate. Writing scathing reviews can be a lot of fun…

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Yes you. ALWAYS YOU!

But what really sealed the fate of ‘Robin Hood’ as an out and out flop (again, let’s brush over the fact that it was reasonably profitable) was the reaction from the studio. They didn’t believe in it and they were ashamed. Believing the bad press, they tried to bury ‘Robin Hood’ like when the Grammy people took back the Milli Vanilli Grammy. The Disney version of ‘Robin Hood’ was the lip syncing, voice snatching, dreadlocked pop duo nobody wanted anymore.

And yet, odds are if you are reading this, you have seen ‘Robin Hood.’ So what happened? Well it was, as TV Tropes puts it, vindicated by history, enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the 80’s and 90’s in particular when it was released on VHS. It is so closely associated with this era of Disney that I was initially surprised at how long ago it was actually released. In a different setting, in another era, not so close to ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pinocchio’ and the like, ‘Robin Hood’ could be enjoyed without the ghost of Disney hovering over it, moustache all a quiver, bellowing:
‘Whose idea was it to make Prince John that fey???’ And so it was relished. A lot. Oh man. Fans of this film really love it.

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Moving on…

So how did it come about in the first place? Well it was going to be a film about Reynard the Fox but he was deemed a bad role model before he even had a change to prove he had changed and so it became about Robin Hood instead only they kept the fox idea. Writer Ken Anderson constructed the story and characters and was said to have wept bitter tears when he saw what Disney did to his ideas. So what was he particularity upset about? Well he wanted the Sheriff of Nottingham to be a Goat and Disney made him a Wolf, which Anderson felt was a bit of a cliché in terms of villainous animals. Yeah…What a terrible problem to have? In fairness, I hate it when people change my goats into wolves. It is the worst.

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Who did this?

As I say, production was plagued with insecurities leading to the curious choice to pretend it never happened. I guess the Studio thought, what with the critical reception being mostly poor, they had hit rock bottom. Which is hilarious. Because I know what is coming…

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Soon.

But first: Let us away to Nottingham!

Did I see it as a child?

Yes I feel like I must have owned it, because I vividly remember the front cover of the VHS. I could describe it to you, but you know the old saying: One picture is worth more than my clumsy attempts at nostalgia:

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This is it. See how easy that was?

Synopsis:

The film begins with a chilled out rooster informing us that there are many versions of the forthcoming story in existence but the animal kingdom have their own version. And it is the only right one. Ha. It is like those people who say they respect all religions while nursing a smug smiles that tells you they secretly know they are going to Heaven and you are not.

So we are plopped into the middle of the story in some ways, as Robin Hood has been robbing from the rich to help the poor for quite some time when the story opens (the moral conundrum of engaging in criminal activity in order to ease the suffering of others is tossed under the rug very quickly, a decision that suits me fine) making him a hero to the people of Nottingham and public enemy number one according to the constantly humiliated and deeply unimpressive Prince John. After Robin attends an archery tournament in disguise in order to see his long lost love Maid Marian, the seething tension between the upper and lower classes can no longer be contained…And then the real fun begins…

What Works:

Let’s start from the top: As the film began I settled in for the usual extra long Disney credit sequence and boring narrated introduction. And instead I got the fabulously soothing/cool/possibly high voice of Roger Miller as Alan-a-Dale as a Rooster informing me his job is to: ‘Tell it like it is…or was…or whatever.’ Right away I am in. The leisurely drawl, and the admission right there in the opening that the narrative device as executed by Disney is often bullshit, was enough to win me over.

And yet I got more: The opening credits are like an old school sitcom, with everyone getting a little intro card and the music…Well man alive, is the ‘Whistle Stop’ song not the most joyful thing? It sets the tone of the whole film, as well it might: it is laid back, fun, and utterly charming. So much so, I am going to post the whole intro right here for you to enjoy because it is too good not to share. It is a good litmus test because quite frankly if you don’t like this, you won’t like the movie either:

Oh and yes. That song did go on to be the Hamster Song. Let us speak on that no further.

And then we are introduced to Robin Hood and Little John with another FANTASTIC song. ‘Oo De Lally’ is just…Oh boy oh boy! I love the way they strut along to their theme songs like ‘Sing it bitches!’

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They are enjoying their bromance so much they even go so far as to frolic in the water together. And then the song switches up a gear lyrically, while not remotely changing pace musically, when the pair are pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham and they go from ‘walking through the forest’ to ‘running through the forest…Jumping fences, dodging trees, trying to get away…’ What a day, indeed.

It is a triumphant intro followed by an excellently paced conversation between the buddies that tells us what we need to know without getting too bogged down in exposition. Keep in mind, not everyone is born knowing the Robin Hood legend: Some set up is necessary and it is executed with ease here and sold with the charm of Phil Harris and Brian Bedford (I love that Robin Hood is really very posh) as a banter filled conversation about how worried they should be about their current predicament.

As I said in the synopsis, the writers take the opportunity of a Bear and a Fox in a tree together to quickly bring up and then promptly ignore the ‘Is what we are doing wrong, even if we are doing it for the right reasons?’ question. Little John expresses minor doubts only for Robin to quash them breezily with insistence that they merely borrow…Great! Err what? Ok, but I actually appreciate that the Studio opt to stick to the light, happy, adventure and not preoccupy themselves with moral grey areas. Perhaps they were too scared to tackle the big questions without Walt telling them what to think but I doubt they could pull it off so I am happy they didn’t try.

Anyway, it is apparent whose side we are supposed to be on. The Sheriff cheerfully robs a young Bunny’s birthday money for taxes. Clearly we are supposed to be rooting for Robin and his people. Luckily, this is easy as Disney successfully manage to capture a community vibe in just a few short scenes and the way the characters interact is pretty great. They are all cheerful and mild mannered until threatened and then they hold their own. My favourite examples of this are Clucky, Maid Marian’s Lady in waiting, who shoos the Maid away from the violence pointing out it is not place for a lady before getting stuck in herself.

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Booyah.

And then there is the benevolent Friar Tuck, who goes from belly bouncing the Sheriff out of his church to attacking him with a stick in a matter of seconds.

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That escalated quickly…

Having characters that are prepared to put their lives on the line for what they believe in is quite compelling and it just adds to their likeability.

So back to Robin and Little John in their tree. The next scene isn’t a fantastic example of what works about the film, but I couldn’t not mention it. They notice the royal carriage passing by (would a solid gold carriage be able to move? Just asking for a friend) and decide this is a great opportunity for some classic Robin Hood manoeuvres. Like all good wacky capers this involves dressing in drag. Naturally.

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Honk.

What I love about this is how Little John doesn’t even attempt a woman’s voice. He is not 100% committed to these shenanigans. Now this is where things get laazy. So while Robin is distracting the Prince (by promising him a crown which, considering he is already wearing one, he gets very excited about) Little John takes the gold. Right in front of the Guards. Seriously. Look at what happens:

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They are looking right at him! What? So did their first day of Guard Training go like this:

Leader: Any questions?
Trainee Guard: So We don’t move for anyone unless directly ordered?
Leader: That’s right.
TG: But what if a big bear in a wig with fake tits sticks a sword into the…
Leader: You hold your post, solider.
TG: Even if we can clearly see the coins flowing into his bra?
Leader: Look, do you want to protect the crown or don’t you???

Yeah so this bit is pretty goofy. Not going to lie. I found it funny though.

So we have capers, fights, jovial songs, fun characters…What else does ‘Robin Hood’ have to offer? Well speaking of fun characters, there are some great jokes to enjoy, no matter how old you happened to be. I actually really appreciated Hiss, Prince John’s (wait for it) snake asissssstant, mainly for some of the bizarre visual gags he got. While I am tired of Disney teaching children that snakes have hypnotic powers, I got a kick out of learning that Snakes can fold their arms when they are in a huff:

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Spoiler: I didn’t do well in Biology

I was also tickled to learn that he sleeps in a cot at the end of Prince John’s bed. Excellent. But best of all…Oh man…I seriously LOVE flying snake. For reals. I could watch Hiss spying on the archery contest by making his tail fly with his head in a balloon forever and not get bored…

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Happiness is a flying snake. Animal Fact.

Sir Hiss joins that great film tradition of being a put upon sad sack who often get physically punished for mistakes despite being demonstrably smarter than those above him. It sucks to be Hiss. So let us see him in a happier moment, playing with the money they have gleefully super taxed in a way that I genuinely still copy if I am ever given a stack of coins for some reason:

hiss gold gif

So now we are talking villains, what about Prince John? Welll…I am kind of on the fence about him. The oscar winning actor, Peter Ustinov, has an admirable go hard or go home approach to the character and the writing certainly aids this portrayal, what with him literally saying things like: ‘Power! POWER! Forgive me a cruel chuckle!’ and ‘My Gooooold!’ Yes. Ladies and Gentleman, the role of the main villain will tonight be performed by a camp lion who isn’t remotely threatening.

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Tremble in fear…I guess. 

How do I feel about this? I’m not sure. Apparently the actor was parodying his own performance as Emperor Nero in ‘Quo Vadis’ and I guess it kind of works. It is even possible to pity his pathetic nature and as a child I remember feeling bad for him whenever Hiss mentioned his Mother and he fell to pieces. However I do enjoy my Disney villains with a bit of bite and it would have been nice to see the Lion food chain it, once or twice (Lion eats Fox right?) rather than pussing out and just beating his snake instead.

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See what I did there?

But the actor seriously commits and it brings some funny moments. Plus I like the idea that the downfall of the people of Nottingham comes after they write a catchy roast in song form called ‘The Phoney King of England.’ Soon the Sheriff is declaring the tune ‘a hit’ suggesting that they pressed it into a single shortly after the party, and the Prince is so furious in humiliation that he ups the already high taxes leading to pretty much everyone going to jail. It is a smart story choice, because it rings true: How many powerful people can you think of that are incredibly insecure, surprisingly sensitive to criticism and have no sense of humour about themselves?

Kanye West Visits BET's "106 & Park"

Why doesn’t everyone in the whole entire world recognise what a humble genius I am?

The song that Alan-a-Dale gives us when everyone is locked up, ‘Not in Nottingham’ is nicely atmospheric and the scene that accompanies it is melancholy, as things are a bit grim but all hope is not lost. The whole sequence lets the audience see how the stakes are high for the third act climax without sacrificing the pre established tone of the film.

And the climax is great. Prison Break! Much better than the drag caper from earlier. I especially like Robin Hood’s plan of putting all the bags of money on a pulley system, an image that has stuck with me as the stand out scene from childhood. I like Robin’s obvious disdain for Prince John, as he mutters in his sleep. And then Robin gets greedy: He insists on taking ALL the money, including the bags of coins Prince John is spooning. This seems a tad unreasonable: I mean, some of it belongs to him right? In many ways, Robin Hood is just a greedy as the Phoney King. Although much smoother.

Anyway, his desire to leave no coin behind is his undoing as he ends up having to make a hasty getaway and then it all kicks off. And it is awesome.

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Go Robin go!

Earlier, during the whole archery contest débâcle, Robin is clearly getting a kick out of taking a risk and smiles as he sword fights with the Prince. But throughout this sequence he seems genuinely worried and unsure how he is going to survive. The peril feels real, as he is forced to scale the tallest tower to get away from a quickly spreading fire set to trap him, as arrows fly up at his head, and finally he leaps into the moat below…Golly what a day!

The rotten tomato summary of the critical consensus has this to say about the film: ‘One of the weaker Disney adaptations, Robin Hood is cute and colourful but lacks the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts.’ Which to me, sounds like a lot of the disapproval levelled at this film is straight up snobbery. ‘Fantasia’ did not do well at the time but because it is unique it has been historically lauded as a work of sure genius. While it doesn’t deserved to be stripped of that title I found it a slog to watch for the most part. That’s the truth. ‘Robin Hood’ was easy viewing. Does a lack of scale and majesty mean it is automatically worse? Hell no. Does a bucket load of charm make it immune to my nitpicking? Hell to the hell no…

What Doesn’t Work:

A wolf? As the sheriff? Should have been a nasty Goat…

I’m just fucking with you. The evil animal being a wolf didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment nearly as much as the over used voice actors. Now none of the voice actors do a bad job here. But I can only assume that Disney were cutting costs and/or risk again with the decision to use tried and tested performers for nearly all the characters.

Monica Evans, Carole Shelley, Patt Buttram, George Lindsey, J Pat O Malley, John Fiedler, Barabara Luddy and Phil Harris all had roles in other films both in the past and many in future films. Most of them were in ‘Aristocats’ and given that I watched the films back to back it was a little…Well…Let’s just say that Jim Cummings they ain’t. When they play another character it is more or less the same character and definitely the same voice. My love for Phil Harris has been well documented in previous reviews, but given this is the third film in a row where he plays a cool, laid back, musical dude, I was starting to suffer from Phil Harris fatigue.

You see, the same voice is forgiveable. But near identical characters is another matter. Baloo and Little John not only sound the same, they look the same and act the same. That is just lazy. I can ignore sloppy continuity in animation (and there is too much of that to mention here, but they were skint and harassed, I get it) but I am united with the critics about how this film really needed to be a bit tighter, and a bit different to what had come before. To do justice to what is a nice little story with some great moments. Write new characters, draw new faces… Use your imagination Disney people!

Easily the weakest link in this particular Disney chain is Maid Marian. We first meet her when some neighbourhood kids find their way into her shuttlecock court which is lucky because it means she has a rapt audience to explain what is up with her and Robin. See they were childhood sweethearts who have not seen each other in a really long time. That’s it. But that doesn’t satisfy the sexual appetite of the children: ‘Did he kiss you?’ One practically salivates. ‘Are you going to have children?’ asks another. What are you, her Grandmother? Nosy little pricks.

But their incredibly rude questions get Marian all nostalgic and horny. Hell, she is so hard up she takes the young Bunny pretending to be Robin Hood into the bushes for some above the clothes stuff (reverse the genders and tell me you are ok with this) before heading to the next scene where she moons over Robin’s Wanted poster which she has pinned up in what is essentially her locker.

So the fire has been rekindled in her foxy loins. So now what? Well…Nothing. Yep. She isn’t going to go look for him. She is just going to…Hope to run in to him again, I guess. Maybe they will both join the same checkers club or something. Wow. Super glad we got two scenes with this character she is clearly a woman of action!

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And a paedophile. But let’s not linger on that.

So it is up to Robin to find her and stop her kissing children, so he disguises himself for the archery tournament which he knows she will attend because the prize is a kiss from her. Yep. That Marian sure does loooove snogging.

But after Hiss foils Robin’s disguise by sticking his head up his ass and immediately recognising him:

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Robin is captured and is immediately to be put to death. But Marian won’t stand for it. After Robin confirms he does in fact still love her (No pressure mate) Marian pulls out all the stops to save her man. Well, she cries. And then Little John sorts shit out. As usual. After he holds Prince John at knife point and forces him to release his pal, Robin is all over Marian with: ‘I owe you my life darling.’ Which simply isn’t true.

And then, to truly cement her lack of worth to the story, Klucky tells her to get out the way and literally, LITERALLY, 1/8th of a second later she is like: ‘Help! Robin! Help!’ NOBODY IS TRYING TO KILL HER OR ANYTHING SHE JUST CAN’T HANDLE FENDING FOR HERSELF FOR THE TIME IT TAKES TO BLINK.

So after they all flee to the woods the reunited lovers share an uninspired love song uninspiredly named ‘Love.’ Well sigh. The story grinds to a halt, although I did enjoy the lyric: ‘Now you’re all grown up inside of me’ Just…wow. Ok. Then they are cock blocked by a surprise party…After which Marian is not seen until the very end when she and Robin get married. Pointless. Utterly fucking pointless. A waste of already hard to come by animation.

she is in love

I always did like her outfit though.

Now before you point out that Maid Marian isn’t suppose to have a big role or cite some Robin Hood lore I know nothing about, keep in mind this version is narrated by a stoned rooster. Would it have killed them to give her some personality or a purpose? You could remove her from the story and lose nothing of worth. And anybody who thinks Maid Marian just can’t be an interesting character, Tony Robinson’s excellent children’s TV show begs to differ:

You should have seen how happy I was when I realised I had an excuse to use this…I hope it delights my readers from overseas

So Maid Marian was boring and their relationship, while it has its moments, was not developed enough. What’s next on the hit list? Well the ending. Remember earlier when I said Robin jumped into the moat? Well yeah, he survives after a brief fakeout and then it cuts to Alan-a-Dale reassuring us that: ‘King Richard, returned and straightened everything out’ Oh. Good…What?

In their defence, the film is over. Robin busts out his friends and lives to tell the tale and Prince John has flipped his lid and beaten his snake so…Story over? But it is abrupt and sort of odd to keep the whole King Richard returning and taking care of business off screen…It might have had a little more impact if he had been allowed to show up while things were all dramatic. In fact, that ending was story boarded and even had a bit more Marian to remind us she does in fact still exist and didn’t pass away from too much fun the night of the party:

So is the extended version better? Yes. It is still not great but at least it is an ending. The slap dash, everything worked out just fine thank you very much was never going to be very satisfying.

Oh and this guy is a benefit cheat. If he can dance, he can work:

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#BrokenBritain

So that was ‘Robin Hood.’ I am baffled by the fact that some critics really hated it. I mean, I can understand not being blown away by it, an earth shattering classic this is not, but how could you possibly dislike it utterly? It falls under the same kind of category as ‘101 Dalmatians’ in that it is unpretentious, quite good fun and at least it has the decency to have some exciting moments…Unlike other films I could mention…

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Yes I mean you. I ALWAYS MEAN YOU. YOU KEEP ME AWAKE AT NIGHT!!!!

Conclusion: 

While many people of my generation herald it as a classic and the more traditional Disney lovers view it as a rare misstep, I land somewhere in the middle: I would watch it again as it is consumable, charming and kept me amused. While some of the choices they made, whether they were born out of necessity or lack of creative flair, stop it from being the cream of the crop for me personally, I would still recommend it happily to anyone who wants to see a snake fly, hear a rooster whistle and watch a fox sword fight. So everyone.

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 2

The executioner, accompanied by a nerve wrecking drum beat:

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He is available for birthday parties!

And, on a personal note, the arrest of Friar Tuck which really freaked me out as a kid.

Best Song: While ‘Phoney King of England’ is great and ‘Whistle Stop’ a joy, I have to give this one to ‘Oo-de-Lally’ as it remains one of my favourite Disney songs despite, or perhaps because of, its lack of pomp and circumstance. My only complaint is that it really needs to be longer. Even the Disney Sing a Long people have to play it twice to justify its inclusion:

Next Time: A willy nilly silly old bear…It’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

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Filed under Alternative Ending, Awesome Fox, BC is coming, Camp Lion, Cheap Animation, Cosplay, Disney Reviews, Flying Snake, It is Whistle Stop not the Hamster Song, Legends, Maid Marian Looks Good in Purple and that is it, Oo De Lally, Posh Robin, Stoned Rooster, Yes I am still thinking about Sword in the Stone